100 Things You Should Know About People: #69 — Your Brain Craves Surprises

Picture of Lucille Ball looking surprisedIn Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I talk about the role of the “old” brain in scanning the environment looking for anything that is dangerous. This also means that the unconscious, old brain is looking for anything that is new or novel.

Water vs. fruit juice — Research by Gregory Berns (2001) shows that the human brain is not only looking for the unexpected, it actually craves the unexpected. Berns used a computer-controlled device to squirt either water or fruit juice into people’s mouths while their brains were being scanned by an fMRI device. Sometimes the participants could predict when they were going to get a squirt, but other times it was unpredictable. The researchers thought that they would see activity based on what people liked. For example, if people liked juice then they would see activity in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain. The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain that is active when people are experiencing pleasurable events.

Liking surprise — The nucleus accumbens was most active when the squirt was unexpected. It was the surprise that showed activity, not the preferred liquid.

Berns must have enjoyed the research since he was surprised himself!

What do you think? Are you surprised that people crave surprise?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Berns, Gregory S., McClure, S., Pagnoni, G., & Montague, P. (2001). Predictability modulates human brain response to reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21(8), 2793–2798.